Preparing the ground


Fieldnotes, Chamba,

3rd Oct 2014.

If felt like things moved on today. U’s first task was to fix a new shaft for his metal plough. With several kids looking on he used a lathe to shape a long piece of wood. This didn’t work so he reverted to the family’s old wooden plough. With M away U will also plough his fields – not for payment but because they are brothers. (But what of B who has been in Solan since 2002 working for the Electricity Department? U farms his fields but profits are shared) Tied to two of his cows – Rikku and Quatro – U set off across his house field turning the earth for the next crop. I watched. And then felt I should give it a try. Yesterday when asked how I felt about collecting maize I said it was easy enough – “women’s work” U agreed. Hal chalana I found much harder. I couldn’t stick to the required line, had to manhandle the cows to get them to turn and was drenched in sweat after two runs of the field despite it being only 8 o’clock. I managed two more runs before giving up. U kindly said the problem was that the plough was too small for me. He then let A take over (A became old enough to handle the plough last year when he was 11). In the next field a woman was driving the plough quite easily (but I thought women weren’t supposed to plough?). Later they switched from the hal to a flat darshala to even up the earth.

A pilgrim came and sat with me for a while. U joined us and we discussed the places the pilgrim had visited. He was from Ayodhya in U.P. and since childhood had been going ‘aate, jaate, ghumna, dekhna’. MM brought tea and biscuits. The pilgrim talked quickly and repeated points about dharm by counting them off on his fingers. He talked of the Golden Temple, and Mani Mahesh Kailash, he talked of pilgrimage sites in Haryana and Rajasthan. He talked at length about the problems caused by the ‘mussalman’ and – though I couldn’t follow every word – the expression on his face showed disgust. He would have been a boy when the Babri Masjid was torn down. U squatted on the veranda, looking and listening, but without showing any great interest. When outsiders visit U doesn’t talk much or reveal his feelings until they have left. U was clearly comparing this wandering pilgrim’s pristine white clothes with the set he himself habitually wears that were browned with the earth of his newly ploughed field.


U told me that today he’d sold two cheli (goats) to a Gujjar. He got a good price – 7500rs for both – because Bakr Eid is approaching it’s a seller’s market. U seems genuinely unconcerned by matters of religion and entirely without communal feeling.  There is the bhaichara, neighbours Gujjar Muslims and Gaddi Hindus, and then there are outsiders like this pilgrim from Ayodhya.

The question of Dushera remained. U didn’t want to go because he had to watch his goats. He said MM couldn’t go because another lady had called her to help the collective effort of cutting the grass. N is too young to go to Chamba town but U agreed that A would go as he hadn’t seen Dusherra before. A changed into his best clothes; like everyone (including me) else he has a set or two that he wears for 4 or 5 days in a row and a set he changes into for special events.



Reading back through these field notes it struck me that they were written within months of the BJP’s election victory in 2014. Modi had come to power promising ‘acche din’ and ‘maximum governance, minimum government’, attempting to put behind him the genocidal violence that had marked his rule in Gujarat. But in 2014 his Hindutva agenda was reaching out across India already – insidiously working its way into the framework of households and villages, changing relationships, reshaping bodies, tainting minds. It came in pristine clothes, talked of the marvels of the ancient religion, it spoke and it took and it appeared uninterested in the lives of the people it encountered. Back then it felt wildly incongruous to find it eating biscuits among the earthiness of the village. Back then U found humour in its exaggerated sense of self-confidence. Back then we laughed at it when it left the village. But it would be back, its message would be repeated and reinforced. Today it comes from above – revoking Article 370 in Kashmir, the CAA and NRC,  detention camps in Assam. But, as I saw on the day that U introduced me to ploughing, the ground was being prepared long before.


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